Monday, July 20, 2020

Something New

 We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“DANCE PRONE” by David Coventry (Victoria University of Wellington Press,  $NZ35)

            Do you have to be an expert in punk-rock music to appreciate David Coventry’s second novel Dance Prone? If so, then I would be totally excluded. All I know of punk-rock comes from seeing films such as Sid and Nancy and The Great Rock and Roll Swindle back in the 1980s when I was a film reviewer; and they dealt with the British variety of punk, not the American variety that concerns Dance Prone. David Coventry makes some references to real punk-rock groups about which I know nothing. The novel probably has some in-references that I don’t get. Even so, I don’t feel excluded. After all, I don’t know much about cycling as a sport, but I had no difficulty reading and admiring Coventry’s first novel The Invisible Mile [see review below] concerning the Tour de France in the 1920s. In both, it’s the author’s skill and ability to create a sense of immediacy that makes for readability, and Dance Prone is not only about punk-rock any more than The Invisible Mile was only about cycle racing.

The two novels have much in common. Both are told in the first-person. In both, the narrator is a man who has to spend much time trying to come to terms with traumatic things in his past. In both, the narrator is somebody whose mind is often disoriented by the ingestion of drugs and alcohol. Both also feature gruelling journeys – in this case, the punk-rock band travelling from gig to gig, mainly in the south-west of the USA, in 1985; and then, in later years, the journeys of the main character to out-of-the-way places like New Zealand and North Africa. Across its 400–odd pages, Dance Prone disrupts linear time and jumps between 1985 and the early 21st century, with chapters ranging from 2002 to 2020. In other words, we see the main characters in their 20s and then ageing into their 40s and 50s. Ageing and memory are key preoccupations of this novel, as they fittingly are for an author who is now in his fifties and who, reportedly, was himself once part of the punk scene.

In 1985, the narrator Con (Conrad Wells) plays in a punk-rock band called Neues Bauen which sometimes shares gigs with other groups called Spurn Cock and Rhinosaur. He’s frontman, guitarist and vocalist. Others in the group are Spence (Spencer Finchman), Tone (Tony Seburg), Angel, and sometimes a Leo Brodkey. All are apparently American except for the New Zealander Tone. All are of college age, with some of them dropped out of degree courses, and some trying to keep up with study; so there’s a bit of intellectual conversation when they’re not drunk, doped or hung-over. As Con says  “we’re nerds practising like retards, so we can be as loose as the shits” (p.12).  These punks are more middle-class than the earlier British working-class kids who kicked off the original punk-rock. Tone’s sister Sonya and occasionally a girl called Vicki follow the band and its fortunes – sort of groupies, but sharp enough to be not only that.

The punk-rock lifestyle is not varnished for us. The novel’s opening eight pages give us the grunt and sweat and loud and provocative performance and destructive stunts of the band on stage, and the Dionysian fever and violence of the audience. The band plays to  “students and badass scene kids crazed on trucker speed and bourbon” (p.43). Fights routinely break out as people smash bottles and try to jump on stage. Blood, sweat and snot fly around. Grot and dirt are trademarks of the milieu. Between gigs, the band travel in a cramped van which, we are told, reeks of pizza, unwashed clothes, rust and the smell of semen left over from casual sex or masturbation. Sex is usually confrontational at least, and often verging on the violent. Sometimes there’s the suggestion that this environment adds up to a collective madness. Very late in the novel Tone declares, of the bad things that have happened in their lives, that “Everything happens when we’re all together” (p.353). Folie-a-deux multiplied a bit. Some conventional critiques of the music (of any genre of music!) crop up. In later years, Tone has moved from indie recording and is for a while commercially successful when the others aren’t – suggesting some sort of sell-out. As in all human groups, there are pecking orders and pretensions (a sort of inverse snobbery) in the punk scene. Vicki tells Con “You despise everyone who’s not listening to whatever record, then you hate them for uncooling it if they do.” (p.14) Yep, even I have crossed paths with this sort of snobbery and superiority among devotees of pop, rock, punk, funk, rap, cult movies or whatever.

A novel has to have a narrative thread – and Dance Prone assuredly has one. As we learn in the opening chapters, one night when he is doped and drugged and out of it, Con is raped anally in the group’s van. On the same night Tone shoots himself (outwards) through his cheek, mutilating his face but not killing himself. Who raped Con? Why did Tone shoot? As the novel develops we also learn of the multiple rape of a girl called Miriam, what appears to have been a suicide and other things not resolved. Unsavoury things happen to, or are perpetrated by, Tone, Angel and Spence. Con’s attempts to find out who raped him, and what actually happened to the others, are the novel’s narrative thread, compounded later when Con has to search for Tone, who has gone missing.

But this is not primarily a mystery story. Dance Prone is as concerned to analyse punk as a cultural and intellectual phenomenon. Somehow punk rock is a search for either an ultimate experience or for oblivion, which could be the same thing. Often Con tries to articulate what exactly punk seeks to achieve, with generalised statements about the genre such as:

This is the thing about punk rock, it can have intellectuals and mental defects, criminal, upper-class toffs and working class pugilists on the same stage, hunting down that one elusive spark amongst the violence. That one thing said out loud and right into the world’s face: there is a way beyond this. (p.140)

Even when he deplores those who come to gigs just to smash things up, he still tries to place punk in an historical-cultural context:

You can tell a prick by the way they dress, the way they show up at a gig and they’re all in your face because they believe punk’s about smashing someone for the sake of a brawl. But punk has nothing to do with fighting. I mean. Look at us. Nerds lost on the way to class, scoundrels with fast fingers. Skinny butts and weak arms. But we’re also liable to fuck anyone who will have us. Punk was never about destruction, it was about reconstruction. The destruction had already taken place. It was all around us. This was us in the aftermath, conforming in the way that seemed right.” (p.147)

But in later years, as he listens to new music the reunified group has recorded, he wonders whether punk ever reached the status of a true critique, or whether it merely compounded chaos:

I always wanted to make music that was as confused as I was. As fucked. You know. I only know that now. Not as confused, that enacted how confused I was. Like I didn’t want to make music that sounded like sex; I wanted to make music as an abstract of how confusing sex is. But now, I don’t know: this record sounds like rutting and I don’t know.” (p.184)

Was punk of this middle-class, college-boy variety reaching for a new sort of religion? Did it have a theological content? The evidence is ambiguous. The sheer noise was there to exclude the wider world, to reduce everything to the immediate moment – all the past, all the cultural baggage, obliterated in movement and a collective howl. In Chapter 29, someone expresses the view that getting tattooed – as Con and others do - and fighting at punk gigs are really a cult means of accepting performed pain to block out the real pain of the world. Isn’t this what many religions do? In Dance Prone there are long episodes where members of Neues Bauen mingle with the exlusivist, alternative-lifestyle group headed by the older woman Joan George-Warren, with her ideas of repeated archetypes where we have no free will and we are locked into endless repetition of the same forms, a concept very like Nietzsche’s “eternal return”.  Joan George-Warren encourages her acolytes to act out the rituals of worship from all religions. Is this an attempt to reach an ultimate form of religion? Or is it merely an attempt to get a physical kick like a chemical high – a short cut to ecstasy? Similar ambiguity hangs over the later sections of the novel, where a huge art-work in the Atlas Mountains in North Africa could be seen as atonement or as an expression of hubristic egotism.

Whatever theories there may be about forms endlessly repeating, for the individual there is the relentless march of linear time, no matter how much this novel defies it. We get older. Memory fades or becomes jumbled and deceptive. Legends are created. Con becomes more aware of his age. In 2019, when he’s in his 50s,  Con is accosted by some young toughs in Wellington and describes them as “these people not yet born the last time I was willing to get a tooth knocked out.” (p.199) Con also knows that his memory is damaged. Is this the result of trauma? Has he wilfully blotted out things he doesn’t want to think about? [Iconoclastically, I also wonder if all the punk-lifestyle consumption of drugs and booze has had something to do with it.] So memory can’t be trusted.

In 2019, Con sees videos of himself performing in 1985 and is shocked at the disparity between the event as he has remembered it and the event as coldly and objectively recorded. He stresses over whether he was, back then, as good a musician as he thought he was. Perhaps Tone or Spence knew more about musical technique than he did. Tone’s sister Sonya, who gradually becomes more important in Con’s life, quotes Vicki on the topic of memory: “She said how all memories, they’re always on the go…. They’re always subject to incessant adjustment… We don’t ever notice that a memory’s altered, cos it always looks the same to us… The good news about this is that memory can’t ever signify reality, not with any degree of precision. It’s ridiculous, but I find this such a relief…” (p.249)

I hope I am not carping when I suggest that there is an over-long spinning-out of dark secrets in the last quarter of the novel. We understand that all the sorry testimony Con eventually hears could, in fact, be as flawed as his own memories. Even so, this could have been conveyed more concisely. But that’s the one major negative I can say about Dance Prone. This is as complex and complete a novel as David Coventry’s debut was. It’s one thing to hold together a large cast of characters, as Coventry does. It’s even more of an achievement to engage readers who have no particular interest in punk-rock and its consequences, and to make the musicianship of punk-rock vivid and interesting. Coventry does this too, and in the process reveals the ambiguity of the genre. Ambiguity hangs over even the domestic peace that Con eventually seems to have found. Definitive peace of mind remains elusive.

Footnotes: Here are a few incidental little things that I wondered about in Dance Prone.

The word “adultescent” (on p.61) was a new one on me, but if it means what I think it means – being an adult but acting or thinking like a teenager – then I might appropriate it in future. Or does it mean being a teenager and acting or thinking like an adult? Tell me please.
Does the cover photo of a cactus also suggests a raised middle-finger - like punk-rock gesturing to the world?

            The title of the book. What exactly does Dance Prone mean? I know from the text that it’s the title of a number Con’s group performs. Beyond that, it could signal the way punk-rock makes people prone to dancing (or fighting) rather than reflecting passively. Or could it have a more sinister meaning? In the early episode when Tone shoots himself and is crawling, wounded, on the ground, Con describes him as “jerking… his prone, haemorrhaging figure” (p.18). If you “dance prone” could it mean you’re playing with death? Or is this one of the occasions where I’ve missed an in-reference? Please inform me if I have.

Then, inevitably, there are the names characters are given. Possibly Con is a wilfully unreliable narrator – in which case Con is a con. Is Tone called Tone because he sets the tone of the music? And did the author choose the name Joan George-Warren for his older cultish guru because he was inspired by Holly George-Warren, who wrote the biography of Janis Joplin? Probably not. Reviewers and critics can often over-think things and seek clues to the author’s meaning in unlikely places. Sometimes a cigar is only a cigar, and sometimes a name in a novel is only a name.

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To round things off, I reproduce below the review I wrote, for the NZ Listener, of David Coventry’s first novel The Invisible Mile when it appeared in 2015. Reviews for general-interest magazines tend to be brief, terse and lacking in nuance. If I had had more space I would have analysed The Invisible Mile in more detail, but I present the review unaltered from the form in which it appeared in the Listener (in the issue of 13 June 2015, to be precise).

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            The Tour de France in 1928, with most riders on fixed-wheel cycles that lack modern gearing systems. 5,476 bone-shaking kilometres around the map of France, south-west from Paris down through Brest and Bordeaux, over the unsealed and perilous mountain roads of the Pyrenees, along the Mediterranean coast and back north near the edge of the French Alps.

            There are punctures, crashes, spills, cracked wheels, non-functioning brakes, handle-bars and whole cycles twisted out of shape, bruises, abrasions, open wounds, broken bones, fights between cranky and overwrought riders and frequently the peril of death on the open road.  There is exhaustion, nausea, sleeplessness, rivalry between teams, and some cheating.

            If David Coventry’s vivid debut novel were only about the sport of cycling, it would be one of the most gruelling novels about a sport ever written in New Zealand. But it is quite a bit more than this. 1928 was the year the first-ever English-speaking team competed in the Tour de France. They were three Australians and one New Zealander. To this (historical) team, Coventry adds a (fictitious) fifth member, the novel’s first-person narrator, a bloke from Taranaki.

            The novel is as much about the narrator’s consciousness as it is about the great sports event.

            The narrator reflects on “Frenchmen who believed our presence to be an amusement of some cruel kind.” He reflects on money matters and sponsorship and how teams are arranged and the inequity of it all. He reflects wistfully on churches and cathedrals at various stops, and how they offer a kind of security he wishes he could feel. But most of all, he reflects on his own troubled family background.

            Note, it’s exactly ten years after the Great War. The narrator’s elder brother served in the war and was psychologically damaged by it. At the time, the narrator was comfortably in New Zealand. There’s another family trauma that emerges. Guilt is a huge theme in the narrator’s thoughts. And it gets worse as the Tour approaches its final stages through France’s north-east, where villages still lie in ruins from the war. The very sight of them clangs on the narrator’s nervous system. We sense a grand metaphor in this novel. Participation in the Tour de France is, for the main character, an act of atonement. It is about endurance and survival rather than winning, just as the war was.

            How the narrator expresses himself is often poetic, occasionally almost surreal. But then this is in an age before drug testing. Coaches routinely give cyclists cocaine to pick them up before the day’s cycling begins. The hero, via a mysterious woman who floats in and out of the novel, relaxes with opium in the evenings, as well as downing huge quantities of red wine. One could say that it’s no wonder he gets poetic as exhaustion wrenches at his brain. But this would be to underrate the deftness of David Coventry’s way with words, the pungency of his images, the visceral sense of historical reality.
            A truly extraordinary first novel.

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